When the yellow-and-white striped canopy was raised next to the still-boarded Snack Stand at Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome on June 2, it symbolically represented its 2012, or 53rd–season, opening and ordinarily protected its volunteers from the early-summer sun. This year, however, they had huddled under it to escape the onslaught of rain that had transformed the rolling grass field into a saturated sheen. Because of its frail, yet meticulously-preserved fleet, air shows had, over the years, been rained out. But the annual, FAA-mandated Safety Briefing for the staff that would turn both its props and gears had not and was therefore relocated to the History of Flight Building on the hill above the main parking field.
“This is a very unique spot,” said Neill Herman, Air Show President, of the entire aerodrome, as he distributed copies of its “Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Airshows Ground Crew Briefing 2012” sheets. “We’re following in Cole Palen’s footsteps. He single-handedly did a phenomenal job in creating this place.”
Poised on their wheels, the hangar’s collection of vintage, fabric-covered biplanes, including an original 1908 Voisin, a 1911 Gnome-powered Bleriot XI, a 1915 Nieuport 10, a 1917 Morane Saulnier A-1, and a 1917 Thomas Morse S4B Scout, served as powerplant-breathing proof of Palen’s “living aviation museum,” where, even long after his death, it has continued to fulfill his lifelong mission of “keeping (his) dream alive.”
“These are not modern airplanes made to look like old airplanes,” Herman continued. “They’re the real thing, with original instruments. This is what people want to see.”
Glancing at the three-dozen crew members, he said, “This is a place where its volunteers can flourish, wear period outfits, have fun, and find their niche.”
“Because of our volunteers,” said Mike DiGiacomio, Rhinebeck Museum President, “we have a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with these airplanes. Imagine looking up and seeing a Curtiss Jenny right over your head. Because of our volunteers, we get the rest of the world to enjoy the aerodrome.”
“There are more than 60 antique airplanes, automobiles, and artifacts housed in four museum hangars and the aerodrome buildings on the airfield,” he continued.
“Gathering the people here for the opening,” said Don Fleming, Old Rhinebeck’s Public Relations Manager, “—getting a perspective on the safety, but giving them insight into the operation and having them understand the parts they will play—enhances the aerodrome. We really are a major attraction to the area and the whole region.”
Tying Old Rhinebeck’s purpose together, Herman concluded, “People come here for a glance back in time.”
Like opening their eyes after winter’s hibernation, those airfield-located hangars revealed the aircraft Palen had used to keep his dream alive more than half a century before the day’s safety review, as they peered out at the still-glistening grass that would soon serve as their runway: the Curtiss Model D, the Hanriot, the Caudron G.III, the SPAD VII, the Fokker Dr.1 triplane, and the Anzani-powered Bleriot XI. The latter is the second-oldest flying aircraft in the world.
At noon, as the Safety Briefing ended and the History of Flight hangar’s massive doors slid open, the season’s first tour group filtered in—or back—to the void which seemed frozen in time, preserving aviation’s infancy.
The morning’s rain, having slowed to a trickle, had watered the field from which grass had risen, but, during the summer of 2012, from which so too would Old Rhinebeck’s fabric-covered and wire-braced aircraft, propelled into living history flight toward the patch in the now cloud-dissipating sky during their 53rd year.